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11 November 2022

Leading the way for women in the Pacific

Tuesday 2 April 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Features, Pacific Islands, Regional

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Leading the way for women  in the  Pacific
Chief of Customs for the Cook Islands Customs Service Maria Ioane-Matua. SUPPLIED/24040110//24040111

Maria Ioane-Matua share her journey from a young Customs Officer to becoming the first female Chief of Customs for the Cook Islands Customs Service.

Starting her career in Customs straight out of college at 18, Maria has dedicated 20 years to the service.

Since 2016, she has held supervisory and leadership roles, including managing an all-women team, spearheading significant changes within the organisation, and contributing to the ASYCUDA World Project as a Tariff and Customs Procedure Specialist.

In this Q&A, Maria shares the challenges facing women in leadership roles, strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion, and advice for aspiring young women leaders.

Can you share about your journey to a leadership position in Customs in the Pacific?

Certainly! I started my career as a Customs Officer in the Cook Islands straight out of college at 18 years old. Over the past 20 years, I've held various roles, and since 2016, I've been in supervisory and leadership positions- apart from being a Customs officer from 8am-4pm on Mondays to Fridays, I also took on a part time role at the airport working to five flights a week sometimes supervising up to fourteen to sixteen officers on per flight.

In 2018, I became the Senior Customs Officer – Trade and Revenue Assurance, leading an all-women team and implementing significant changes within the organization. In 2021, I was seconded to the ASYCUDA World Project as the Tariff and Customs Procedure Specialist. Finally, in 2022, I became the first female Chief of Customs for the Cook Islands Customs Service. Other than being a leader in the organisation, I also held various leadership roles within my community, NGOs, church, youth and sports groups.  

In my leadership journey it’s been a pleasure and honor to have worked under the leadership and alongside women and men leaders, some of whom have become prominent figures of our country today- they were my coaches, mentors and advisors. I am thankful to New Zealand Customs, which has been part of my leadership journey since 2019. 

My leadership role in Customs has been both challenging and rewarding, helping me learn and grow. It has broadened my perspective, making me more aware and accountable for decisions that impact not just the organisation but the country as well. The position requires constant learning, adaptability, and innovation, as well as the courage to make tough decisions and learn from mistakes. It's important to seek advice from experienced leaders, invest in your team, and prioritie your health and well-being.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing women in leadership roles in your field?

Balancing work and family responsibilities is a significant challenge. Women are often expected to take care of family welfare, which can impact their career advancement. Additionally, the glass ceiling phenomenon, where women are overlooked for job opportunities or promotions, remains a challenge.

How do you promote diversity and inclusion within your organisation?

I promote diversity and inclusion by supporting work-life balance through flexible work arrangements. I also focus on career development, promoting women leadership, and providing equal access to training and development opportunities. Organising inclusive trainings, stakeholder meetings, events, and activities also helps foster diversity and inclusion.

In your opinion, what strategies are most effective in inspiring inclusion in the Pacific region?

Treating staff equally, fairly, and with respect regardless of gender identity is crucial. Promoting a culture where employees know they're appreciated based on their talent and performance is also effective. Building an inclusive workplace where everyone's voice is heard and creating a space for open dialogue are key strategies.

What advice would you give to young women aspiring to leadership positions in Customs or related fields?

My advice would be to take up any challenge or opportunity that comes your way. Challenge yourself, be prepared, and keep up with the world. Educate yourself, learn from the wise, and be innovative. Do what is right, make mistakes, and learn from them. Be bold and brave, persevere, and don't give up. Invest in your health and well-being, and support gender equality, diversity, and inclusion.

  • Oceania Customs Organisation